Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Is there an afterlife for pacemakers and defibrillators?

Heart Beat

Is there an afterlife for pacemakers and defibrillators?

The old adage "You can't take it with you" doesn't apply to a growing number of people with heart rhythm problems who are accompanied into the great beyond by a still-ticking pacemaker or fully functional implantable cardioverter/defibrillator (ICD). A device buried with its owner or removed before cremation and discarded as medical waste represents a lost opportunity. If returned to the company that made it, researchers could see how it functioned "" or failed. If sent to a small nonprofit organization that recycles working pacemakers and ICDs, it can be used elsewhere in the world for people unable to afford these lifesaving devices.

Few people are aware there's life after death for pacemakers and ICDs. Dr. James Kirkpatrick and his colleagues at the University of Chicago asked 150 people with these devices what they thought might happen to them after death and what they wanted done with theirs. Nearly 90% had no idea what the options were. Three-quarters or more said they'd be willing to have their device sent to the company or donated.

Dr. Kirkpatrick suggests writing a "device advance directive" spelling out what should be done with your device after your death. Like a wedding ring or hearing aid, a pacemaker or ICD is your personal property, so you or your family must tell a mortician what you want done with it. Some companies are making it easy for morticians to return pacemakers and ICDs using "return kits" available via the Internet.

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